Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu Is an Unresolved Brand Refresher

At the very least, Ryan Reynolds’s casting perfectly splits the difference between the adorable and the absurd.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Photo: Warner Bros.

Rob Letterman’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu is based on a 2016 video game of the same name, but its cinematic lineage goes back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Next to its technical accomplishments, Robert Zemeckis’s film was a branding marvel, brokering a conciliation between Warner Bros. and Disney that ended up revitalizing both studios’ iconic characters for the self-reflexive, postmodern era. Detective Pikachu is also a brand refresher disguised as a narrative feature, with the main difference being that the Pokémon Company, one of the production companies behind the film, already owns the rights to all of its clashing hodgepodge of cartoon characters. By itself, this Nintendo subsidiary owns more than enough Pokémon—807 as of this writing—for, God help us, an entire cinematic universe.

The Pokémon games, anime series, and films take place in a modern world co-inhabited by humans and Pokémon, whose primary distinctions from real-world animals are that they have the doe eyes and single-line mouths of anime characters and that, Groot-like, they can only speak their name. Humans in this world can all keep these “pocket monsters” as friends/pets/companions, but professional Pokémon Trainers capture and manage teams of the creatures, deploying them in battles against other Trainers’ Pokémon. Detective Pikachu is the first live-action film to take place in this world, but its story is tangential to the core gameplay of the series’s major titles: The main character, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), grew up wanting to be a Pokémon Trainer but now leads a Pokémon-less existence in the suburbs of Ryme City, an amalgam of London, Tokyo, and Zootopia.

Overseen by industrialist Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), Ryme City is a futuristic utopia where Pokémon battles have been outlawed, and in which a more egalitarian relationship between humans and their Pokémon “partners” is encouraged. Tim is called into the city when his father, Harry, a detective with the Ryme City police department, is seemingly killed in a mysterious car crash. Arriving at his father’s apartment, Tim encounters the man’s amnesiac Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), searching the place and is surprised to find that he can understand the critter. While others hear Pikachu’s trademark squeak of “Pika Pika,” Tim hears a sardonic and distinctly male voice.

As illustrated by the controversy over Sonic’s “human teeth” in the trailer for the forthcoming Sonic the Hedgehog film, there’s a delicate balance to be struck when interpreting graphically simplistic characters for a style of CG animation that lends them weight, depth, and fuzziness. There’s a potentially unsettling dissonance to such characters, one that Detective Pikachu cleverly redirects into humor by giving its adorable flagship character the voice of, well, the foul-mouthed, hypermasculine Deadpool. (Exactly why Reynolds’s voice coming out of a yellow, rodent-like character with rouged cheeks is proving less scandalous than giving a blue hedgehog molars is a question with profound socio-psychological implications.) Together with Pikachu’s Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker cap, Reynolds’s casting yields the perfect anthropomorphism, splitting the difference between the adorable and the absurd.

Pikachu suspects his former partner is still alive, and recruits Tim to help him look for Harry and determine what really occurred on the night of the crash. The course of their investigation sees them entangled in an underground Pokémon battle, interrogating an unlikely Pokémon called Mr. Mime via pantomimed torture, and crossing paths with aspiring intrepid reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her own Pokémon partner, Psyduck. The mystery is a paint-by-numbers affair—it should hardly be a surprise to reveal that the ostensibly kindly Howard Clifford knows more about Harry’s disappearance than he lets on—that provides the film a foundation for world-building. It constructs an alternate reality whose politics and ethics are shaped by the co-existence with semi-sentient cartoon animals.

This predictable but efficiently structured buddy-cop detective adventure provides ample basis for wisecracks exchanged between Pikachu the jester and Tim the straight man. But the screenplay isn’t at the level of similar brand-management fare like The Lego Movie. Its caustic verbal humor often fails to land, especially when it feels out of place in a kid’s movie: In one example of confused word choice ruining an attempt at risqué PG humor, Pikachu suggests that the last time the shy Tim spoke to a woman was “during the birth canal.”

There is also, despite the film’s focus on world-building, an unaddressed contradiction in the universe imagined here. Detective Pikachu portrays Tim as a destined Pokémon Trainer, with inherent gifts for managing Pokémon in battles, which it views as an unambiguously positive quality. But to a trainer, Pokémon are little more than gladiatorial slaves, kept prisoner within the miniaturized space of a Pokéball, and deployed in battle to win the trainer glory. The film emphasizes that there must be a genuine bond between the animal and the trainer—it’s a mutual choice, supposedly—but also posits that a utopian society would outlaw Pokémon battles and see the nominal monsters as partners. That this incoherence betrays the contradiction in real-world beliefs about animals—that they’re both cuddly friends and slavish subordinates—doesn’t excuse the Pokémon Company’s desire for its brand to encapsulate both problematic aspects of our relation to animals, without any attempt to resolve them.

 Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Rita Ora  Director: Rob Letterman  Screenwriter: Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly  Distributor: Warner Bros.  Running Time: 104 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2019  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Pat Brown

Pat Brown teaches Film Studies and American Studies in Germany. His writing on film and media has appeared in various scholarly journals and critical anthologies.

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